South Korea Virtuous Citizens & Sentimental Society


A review of Virtuous Citizens and Sentimental Society: Ethics and Politics in Neoliberal South Korea, by EuyRyung Jun.

This concise dissertation focuses on the activities of NGOs and the Korean state concerning foreign migrants and thereby addresses the shifting and ambiguous relationship between the nation-state and civil society in contemporary South Korea. It uses archival and ethnographic data to analyze how the growing presence of foreign migrants, including workers and brides, has generated moral and ethical concerns about Korean society among the state and civil society organizations, which have become the main actors in the politics of citizenship and migration. Individual chapters examine discourses and practices of the following social groups: foreign workers who are exploited and abused but struggle to exercise their agency (Chapter 2), volunteer activists working for migrant centers in civil society to promote the migrants’ human rights and agency (Chapter 3), the multicultural family formed by an international marriage between Korean man and foreign bride (Chapter 4), and the multicultural citizen as a new model of political identity for native Koreans (Chapter 5). By bringing these different but closely related aspects together, this study persuasively contends that while these NGOs are often critical of the state’s policy toward foreign migrants, their “progressive” approach ends up converging with the state’s production of “multicultural” citizens who are functional to national competitiveness in the global market.

The topic of international migration is very timely in South Korea not so much because of its numerical size as because of its symbolic significance in a society which has perceived itself to be ethnically and racially homogeneous and even “pure.” According to 2011 statistics compiled by the Ministry of Law, approximately 1.4 million foreigners resided in South Korea and this group represented only 2.7% of the entire population. At the same time, international marriages between Korean men and brides from other Asian countries have been growing since the early 1990s and as of 2011 such marriage accounted for one out of every 10 marriages (May 14 2012, Dong-A Daily). In certain rural areas, as of 2011, children of such “multicultural” marriages made up over 30 percent of students enrolled in local elementary schools (June 17 2012, Weekly Choson).  Multicultural marriage was initially confined to rural areas and big cities where poor Korean men could not find willing Korean brides but has spread to small and medium-size cities in provincial areas since the early 2000s. Yet children of such marriages approximated 226,000 (June 14 2012, Seoul Economy Newspaper). The growing visibility of foreign migrants, especially marriage migrants, has generated various types of responses, ranging from a liberal human rights discourse to a blatantly anti-migrant one.

This dissertation is innovative and refreshing in its approach and analysis. First, to examine a wide range of discourses, it aptly applies a Foucauldian framework (which focuses on the technology of discursive power constructing subjectivity) and highlights the altered social and political reality in South Korea that has developed around the increasing migration of foreign workers since the late 1980s and foreign brides since the 1990s. Second, it illuminates how the presence of these migrants has triggered collective concern about moral advancement of Korea beyond its economic development. This focus on the issue of foreign migrants enables Jun to pay attention to how civil society organizations and the state deal with its moral and the sentimental dimension, rather than the economic one. This non-economic angle is refreshing for a study of international migration which often highlights the economic context of neoliberal globalization. In fact, Jun points out that boundaries between the economic, the moral, the sentimental, and the social are blurred in this era of globalization. She aptly connects the Korean state’s multicultural family policy to the classical tradition of the modern state’s biopolitics of managing its population, which Jacques Danzelot analyzed in the context of nineteenth-century France (see Jacques Danzelot, The Policing of Families. Robert Hurley, trans. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. Originally published in French in 1977). Hence, she ties the multicultural family policy of the Korean state to the escalating problem of social reproduction caused by very low birthrates and an aging population. This innovative analysis helps us recognize the moral and affective dimension and the working of the state’s governance which have been commonly overlooked by conventional political economic analyses of globalization.

This dissertation is a welcome addition to the expanding body of studies on South Korea and other non-Western societies that have often been confined to the framework of economic and political development; it shows an innovative and critical intervention in the global production of knowledge in social sciences beyond the development framework and positivistic comparisons that have inscribed linear hierarchy among societies.

Seungsook Moon
Department of Sociology
Vassar College

Primary Sources

Fieldwork notes
Publications from NGOs
Government materials from the Korea Immigration Service and the Committee of Alien Policy, Ministry of Gender Equality etc.
Films: Reassemblage (dir. Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1982); Seri & Harr (dir. Jang Soo Young, 2008); Take Care of My Cat (dir. Jeong Jae Eun, 2001).

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2011. 140 pp. Primary Advisor: Donald Nonini.


Image: A South Korean man weds a Vietnamese woman. Photograph from The Grand Narrative, Korean Gender Reader.

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